This month, the Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness (JVIB) is launching a column called Perspectives. Many of you will remember the Point-Counterpoint column from several years ago, which posed a provocative question and asked two individuals to address opposing sides of the issue. It was often difficult for two individuals to take completely different views on a topic. The Perspectives column is similar in format, in that a question is considered and two or more individuals are asked to comment. However, contributors will not be expected to offer opposing points of view. We hope that this new format will engender richer discussion of the important issues facing our field today.
The inaugural Perspectives column asks six noted individuals who represent important perspectives and constituencies in the field to give their views on the following question: Should a unified braille code be adopted for use across English-speaking countries? Our respondents, each of whom uses braille as a literacy medium, offer rich and insightful perspectives on this important question. These commentators include two leaders of consumer organizations of persons who are blind, an educator, a mathematician, a scientist, and an international consultant. While the issue of adopting a unified braille code is international in scope, these Perspectives will be of primary interest for readers in countries that follow the braille codes of the Braille Authority of North America (BANA).
To provide a context for these Perspectives, I would like to share some information on the concept of a unified braille code and the process currently underway to study one proposed code. The most fundamental principle of a "unified" braille code is that symbols in this braille system are designed to have the same meaning in literary, mathematical, and all other contexts. With our current braille codes, a dollar sign, for example, has one configuration in the literary code, another in the Nemeth code, and still another in the computer code. Such variations in symbols would be eliminated in a unified braille code.
The concept of a unified code for braille was discussed by braille experts in the mid-1980s and was brought formally to BANA's attention by Drs. Abraham Nemeth and Tim Cranmer in 1991. Realizing the international significance of having one unified braille code for all English-speaking countries, the process of studying such a code was transferred to the International Council on English Braille (ICEB), and the name of the proposed code was changed to the Unified English Braille Code (UEBC). ICEB is composed of representatives of the braille authorities of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Nigeria, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
One of the most crucial decisions made about the UEBC early in the development process was whether numbers would be shown in the upper part of the braille cell, as in the BANA literary braille code, or the lower part. Numbers presented in the upper part of the cell would eliminate the need for a punctuation indicator, but would require a number sign. On the other hand, numbers presented in the lower part of the cell would eliminate the need for some number signs, but a punctuation indicator would be needed in certain contexts. After studying both alternatives, ICEB ultimately decided to adopt the convention of placing numbers in the upper part of the braille cell. The issues surrounding this decision are reflected by some of the contributors to this month's Perspectives.
The committee developing the braille symbols for the UEBC has tried to make as few changes as possible in the literary code. However, to eliminate ambiguity, the proposal would eliminate the following signs: ble, com, dd, ally, to, by, into, and ation. The most significant and noticeable changes are proposed for symbols used in mathematics, science, and computer notation, since the UEBC adopted an upper-number system.
Since 1993, BANA and the other braille authorities represented in ICEB have been carrying out a number of research projects on the UEBC. The first international evaluation was conducted in the mid- to late-1990s; the findings of this initial research can be found on the ICEB web site, <www.iceb.org/ubc.html>. After the initial evaluation, BANA distributed samples of literary and technical materials in the UEBC and sought input from consumers, professionals, and transcribers via a questionnaire. Also, BANA has initiated a series of studies related to the impact of the UEBC on factors such as reading speed and comprehension. This work is in progress and is expected to be completed later this year. Other research projects are either underway or have been completed on various aspects of the UEBC.
The first vote on adoption of the UEBC is expected to occur in March 2004, when the ICEB General Assembly meets in Toronto. The initial vote will determine whether the UEBC is accepted as an international braille code. If the vote is affirmative, then each braille authority will decide whether UEBC will be adopted in its individual country.
A major change in the braille code will affect braille readers, teachers, rehabilitation specialists, transcribers, administrators, and others who work with braille in any capacity. Because of the implications of adopting the UEBC, all JVIB readers are encouraged to consider the valuable insights offered in this month's Perspective column, take time to learn more about the UEBC, and provide input on the proposed code. To learn more about the UEBC, perhaps the best place to start is with the two samplers prepared by BANA. Print and braille versions of the two samplers may be obtained by writing to <firstname.lastname@example.org>. These samplers are also available for downloading in a variety of text and braille-ready formats from the ICEB web site, <www.iceb.org/ubcbhdr.html>. On the same web site, three monographs on the UEBC are presented in a question-and-answer format. For an international perspective, readers may wish to review some of the evaluation results from the first ICEB evaluation of the UEBC, as discussed earlier.
Finally, JVIB readers are encouraged to share their thoughts on the proposed UEBC. A forum will be hosted in the public area of JVIB online, <www.afb.org/jvib_message_board.asp>. This will offer an opportunity to post reactions to the issues raised in the Perspectives column, as well as to respond to others' messages. Another avenue for sharing your thoughts with the BANA Board is to either contact members directly (see the contact information on the BANA web site, <www.brailleauthority.org>) or send an e-mail message to <email@example.com>. The BANA Board would very much appreciate receiving your input. JVIB readers from outside the United States should share their thoughts with representatives of their own country's braille authority.
We hope that the Perspectives shared in this issue of the journal will be enlightening and informative and that you will take this opportunity to get involved in this crucial issue in our field. Watch for other Perspectives columns to appear in JVIB.
Alan J. Koenig, Ed.D.
Editor in Chief
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